How America Fell in Love with Pizza

Posted on in categories Pizza , Pizza history

There is no doubt that Americans love pizza. Every second, in this country, we eat 350 slices of this delicious food. That adds up to 100 acres of pizza. If you like these amazing pizza stats you can find more of them in this Washington Post article.

But, the question we have is how did we get here? What were the events that lead to this American love affair with pizza?

What did the Romans ever do for us?

To get the answer to that question, we have to start at the beginning, which takes us right back to the Greeks and Romans. These ancient peoples topped their panis focacius with various ingredients, mostly just olive oil and herbs, but they also used onion, olives, and cheese. Food historians see this way of eating this relatively thin bread as a precursor of the far thinner bread dough topped with authentic Italian tomato sauce, cheese, and basil that later became known as pizza.

Modern pizza is born

Exactly when Italians started eating modern-style pizza is lost in the mists of time. But, what we would recognize as a pizza was very popular with Neapolitans by the early 1800s. At that time, the city was a crowded place. People basically lived and ate outside because space was so tight in their homes. Street vendors could make a pizza quickly from very basic and cheap ingredients. This perfect combination of speed and affordability made it ideal for the many poor people who lived there.

Italian royalty embraces pizza

It is said that the popularity of the dish spread to other parts of Italy when King Umberto I and Queen Margherita visited Naples in 1889. While there, they became bored with the rich food they were being served, so tried pizza. They loved it and continued to enjoy eating it for the rest of their lives.

Tourists and entrepreneurs spread the word too

There is no doubt that Royal patronage helped this peasant food to become more fashionable, across Italy. But, well before the king and queen tried pizza in Naples, visitors to the city had been venturing into the poorer areas and trying this delicious looking food. They loved it and many set about recreating it when they arrived home.

Naples was a destination on the Grand Tour. As a result, tourism was big business for the city from the mid-1600s onwards. In the early 1800s, the introduction of modern transport systems led to tourism in Naples really taking off. Every season, thousands of well-off travelers visited the city. Plus, as a commercial center Naples was always teaming with traders and businessmen. This is why we can find recipes and mentions in places as far apart as the UK and Spain well before the 20th century.

Italian migrants bring the gift of pizza to America

Naturally, when Italians moved to other parts of the world, they took this classic food with them. Between 1900 and 1915 alone, 5 million Italians moved to the USA and the history of pizza in America began.

Initially, it was cooked in the home, but it is impossible to create a real pizza without a wood oven. So, inevitably, someone built a traditional domed oven to cook this classic Italian dish and started to share their creations with other Italians. Again, exactly who was the first is hard to pin down. But, most food historians believe that the first proper pizza restaurant was opened in New York by Gennaro Lombardi. In 1905, he applied for a license to make and sell pizza. His application was approved and he started selling authentic pizza out of his grocery store in Spring Street.

In 1912, Joe’s Tomato Pies opened in Trenton, New Jersey, quickly followed by Totonno’s, Coney Island, Frank Pepe´s Pizzeria in New Haven, and John’s Pizza in Greenwich Village. As Italians, established themselves in other areas and had families they took their pizza tradition with them. Naturally, some people without an Italian heritage tried this intriguing food. But, it took a war for this iconic dish to finally go mainstream.

The GIs who loved pizza

After WWII, American GIs returned home with a hunger for the foods they had eaten while stationed in Italy. In particular, pizza, the rest, as they say, is history.

The Baker’s Pride revolution

One GI was so taken with the food that he came up with a way to cook his favorite dish in a gas oven. His name was Ira Nevin. He was the man responsible for the Baker´s Pride gas-fired oven, which enabled many small retailers to quickly make pizzas and baked good. Fairly, soon pizza was available in virtually any large town. They were not made in a wood-fired oven, so they did not have that special flavor. But, these pizzas were tasty enough and finally made this delicious food available to the masses.

New dough styles and toppings

Each retailer made their own dough. They used different techniques and experimented with their tomato sauce and toppings. Pretty soon there was a pizza to suit everyone´s tastes and dietary needs. This iconic dish is still evolving and being tinkered with today. The recent gluten-free pizza revolution is just one example of this.

Americans return to traditional pizza

Fortunately, some pizzeria owners continued to make traditional pizza. Each one passed their skills down to the next generation. Today, demand for 100% handmade, wood oven cooked pizza is increasing. Without a doubt, the future of real pizza is secure in America as consumers reject pappy mass-produced versions and seek out restaurants, like ours, that only use fresh ingredients and traditional methods.

The whole world embraces pizza

Of course, it is not just Americans that love pizza. Over the decades, people across the globe have fallen in love with this simple yet tasty dish. Something that CNN noted recently when they recently did a piece about the most popular foods in the world. In their review, pizza came 2nd you can read all about it here.


Line Arias is a writer at Nonnabox.com. When she is not experimenting with food, she is either planning her next trip or writing Poetry.